Monday, August 15, 2011

In the Panopticon, no one can hear you reboot

As the streets of the UK erupted last week, I happened to be reading an old blue Penguin I picked up on a trip there earlier this summer, a history of another period of English tumult—the seventeenth century.

The 1600s were of course the period of English revolution. A couple of revolutions, actually, political revolutions fueled by broader cultural currents, especially the religious fervor of the Reformation and its idea that our relationship with our deity needn't be mediated by other men, and the new wealth and change represented by the discovery and colonization of the New World. The 17th century always seems to express some of the essential dichotomies of English political culture, incubating a class radicalism that actually achieves the killing of the King, only to put the monarchy back in a short generation later. And reading about political agitators being banned to the Tower has a particular resonance when Cameron seems to want to do the same with Twitter, right after he kills the BlackBerry messenger.

The dismal scientist of the Interregnum was Thomas Hobbes, the first articulator of social contract theory--considering government as the implementation of a social bargain among its citizens to maintain order. Hobbes arrived at his theory through the reverse extrapolation that led him to conceive of a root state of nature in which an essentially self-interested population of human selves ruthlessly competes for the available resources, resulting in a life that is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." The theory, as modified by Locke, strongly informs all contemporary constitutional conceptions of republican government. But you know all that from school.

What would Hobbes do with the revolutions of today's world against the order established by our twentieth century sovereigns? The events of this year thus far have me thinking a lot about whether the current moment of Network Culture represents the base state of a newer nature: the realm of our Network selves, the chaotic new frontier that has not yet been subjugated to the order and dominion of the State, whose initially unbounded freedom we love and seem to be actively (if not quite consciously) importing into the institutional and socio-political fabric of consensus reality. Bruce Sterling captured the emerging situation pretty well in his February 2010 talk on "Atemporality for the Creative Artist," grimly diagnosing the not-yet-evenly-distributed disharmony of a coming decade of Gothic High Tech as the old institutions collapse before their replacements have emerged:

History books are ink on paper. They are linear narratives with beginning and ends. They are stories created from archival documents and from other books. Network culture, not really into that. Network culture differs from literary culture in a great many ways. And step one is that the operating system is an unquestioned given. The first thing you do is go to the operating system, without even thinking of it as a conscious choice.

Then there is the colossally huge, searchable, public domain, which is now at your fingertips. There are methods to track where the eyeballs of the users are going. There are intellectual property problems in revenue, which interferes with scholarship as much as it aids it. There is a practice of ‘ragpicking’ with digital material - of loops, tracks, sampling. There are search engines, which are becoming major intellectual and public political actors. There is ‘collective intelligence’. Or, if you don’t want to dignify it with that term, you can just call it ‘internet meme ooze’. But it’s all over the place, just termite mounds of poorly organized and extremely potent knowledge, quantifiable, interchangeable data with newly networked relations. We cannot get rid of this stuff. It is our new burden, it is there as a fact on the ground, it is a fait accompli.

There are new asynchronous communication forms that are globalized and offshored, and there is the loss of a canon and a record. There is no single authoritative voice of history. Instead we get wildly empowered cranks, lunatics, and every kind of long-tail intellectual market appearing in network culture. Everything from brilliant insight to scurillous rumor.

This really changes the narrative, and the organized presentations of history in a way that history cannot recover from. This is the source of our gnawing discontent.

It means the end of post-modernism. It means the end of the New World Order, which is about civilizing the entire planet, stopping all the land wars, repressing the terrorism. It means the end of the Washington Consensus of the nineteen nineties. It means the end of the WTO. It means the end of Francis Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’; it ended. And it’s moving in a completely different and unexpected direction.

The idea that history ended, and that the market sorts that out, and that the Pentagon bombs it if that doesn’t work - it’s gone. The situation now is one of growing disorder. A failed state, a potentially failed globe, a collapsed WTO, a collapsed Copenhagen, financial collapses, lifeboat economics, transition to nowhere. Historical narrative, it is simply no longer mapped onto the objective facts of the decade. The maps in our hands don’t match the territory, and that’s why we are upset.

Now, a new master narrative could arise on paper. That would be easy. On paper, if it were just a matter of paper, we could do it. But to do that via the Internet is about as likely as the Internet becoming a single state-controlled television channel. Because a single historical narrative is a paper narrative.

I don’t think we are going to get one. We could conceivably get a new ideology or a new business model that is able to seize control of the course of events and reinstate some clear path to progress, that gets a democratic consensus behind it. I don’t think that’s likely. At least not for ten years. I could be wrong, but it’s not on the near-term radar.

What we are facing over a decade is a decade of emergency rescue, of resiliency, of attempts at sustainability, rather than some kind of clear march toward advanced heights of civilization. We are into an era of decay and repurposing of broken structures, of new social inventions within networks, a world of ‘Gothic High-Tech’ and ‘Favela Chic’ (as I’ve called it), a crooked networked bazaar of history and futurity, rather than a cathedral of history, and a utopia of futurity.

That’s just the situation on the ground. I don’t want to belabor this point. I don’t want to go on and on about the fact that this is a new historical situation. If you don’t get it by now, you will be forced to get it; you will have no other choice.

That kind of sounds a lot like 2011, to my ears.

Think about the Gothic High Tech through the prism of Abraham Bosse's frontispiece from Leviathan (the picture up at the top of this post), with Hobbes's idea of the 17th century sovereign comprised of the people. Now watch the headless Multitudes that represent the new popular movements of 2011, like the creatures from deep fathoms just beginning to swim around near the surface. Isn't the Network itself looking like the real 21st century sovereign? It's starting to feel like the indigenous peoples of Network Culture (we) are on the verge of a very rare opportunity and responsibility: to rewrite their own social contracts from scratch. Which sounds very cool, but also very scary and disruptive (like, there is no food in cyberspace, and the current products of the social contract do a pretty good job of keeping me from getting killed by people who would like to take my shit).

Sure, every one of these popular movements we are watching in 2011 is different, reflecting unique histories, social conditions, and tactical moments. But it can't be a coincidence that David Cameron, Bashar Al-Assad and Hu Jintao all share one executive tenet: that limiting access to the Network is an essential ingredient to their personal conceptions of law and order (i.e., maintaining the power of the establishments, and failing nation states, they represent). The Network increasingly embodies a school of awakening Leviathans around the world (and, as the Network slowly cracks away at language barriers, a global one). As the cyber-mediated mob develops its self-awareness, it starts to act more like a sentient, directed Multitude. The US wants to give would-be rebels in oppressive societies Network access in a briefcase—but may not have fully parsed what the consequences will be of ubiquitous open Network access at home. Zeus's next baby is coming straight out of his head, and this time it's a litter of infinite avatars.

We don't know what the terms of the new social contract that emerges from this chaos will be. But one can venture a few thoughts:

- The Network will be the more important polity than the nation state (another 17th century idea that emerged from the chaos of the Reformation). Network Culture thinks about borders like it thinks about firewalls.

- The social contract of Network Culture will look more like an operating system than a constitution.

- As a polity, Network Culture has an inherent preference for direct democracy. A society of ubiquitous networking, in which people vote for their favorite products and television contest winners quite effectively though naturally occurring systems, will rapidly challenge the republican filters of constitutional democracy, in which popular ideas about how the society should operate are mediated through sclerotic representatives from the power elite whose upgrade schedule is more horseback courier than iPhone. Is it heresy to suggest last week's debt ceiling "debate" and this week's Bachmann Perry Overdrive make the Federalist Papers look like the user's manual for a 1960s television?

- The most important right of Network Culture must be freedom of speech. Free and open self-expression is the best fertilizer and preservative of other freedoms and virtues in any human social network. Network access, I suppose, becomes a necessary predicate to freedom of speech, right after electricity and running water.

- Secrets—state, trade, personal—will be essentially non-existent, or the most precious things there are.

- Politics will operate much more like capitalism, the most effective socially evolved network on the planet, and the one that (together with the nation state's war machine) created the Network. But its currency will be something more like reputation than money. And in parallel, the institutional agglomerations of Capital will atomize, as the anachronism of the long-term employment contract is replaced by project-based collaboration and episodic generation of wealth, in a society where specialization is only helpful in groups of at least three.

- If you've ever been run down by an Internet mob, you know that protections for minority dissent will be the most important countermeasure, and the thing that will probably be the hardest to figure out. Mob rule in a world without privacy? We are going to end up with plenty of Network hermits, 21st century analogs to the Irish monks the Vikings found living in the caves of early medieval Iceland.


Ryan Michael said...

Like the new site design - and I see you've changed your nom de guerre.

It's interesting that you're reading/thinking about the period, I've just started reading Charles Mann's '1493' which largely covers the same time period, although from an ecological perspective.

It's interesting to think about this time from such different angles; 1493 is discussing both how random details of history largely resulted in europe's world domination and how catastrophic the 'New World' was for almost everyone involved in many ways.

I've always taken the political philosophies developed by european thinkers so seriously - it makes me wonder what we'd be discussing if cows had evolved in north america, or China hadn't done such a poor job managing it's paper money supply.

Chris N. Brown said...

Thanks, Ryan. Interesting stuff. I bet we would be talking about computer networks...or would we? Is that a product of peculiar Western historical circumstances?

Regarding the New World, one thing I didn't mention was how much of the English Revolution seems to have been an indirect result of the slave trade and the new wealth it created among non-aristocrats, and how interesting it is to see the threads of those problems of race still working themselves out in English culture.

I think network culture is important ecologically, as a way to enable growth that doesn't inherently require more dominion over the planet—new worlds to conquer that are conjured out of the ether. DO you buy that?

ToB said...

Fantastic post! I'm going to hat tip it in a post on my blog on Thursday the 18th. Hope you'll come by and have a look.

Ryan Michael said...

Wow, so many threads to play with.

I guess I'll need to read more about the slave trade, one interesting point that Mann makes is that the slave trade evolved largely due to the fact that africans had higher immunity to yellow fever and malaria; the colonists needed a labor force and indentured servants from england kept dying off. Adam Smith apparently discussed the issue of slavery and made the case that it was inherently uneconomical - Mann argues that it was only disease resistance which made it profitable in the new world.

The term 'growth' reminds me of an interesting blog I posted on Google+ about recently, Do the Math. It's a physicist talking about the inherent problems with approaching economics from a growth perspective. The issue is that growth means exponential growth, which means (among other things) that given the growth in energy consumption over the past 400 years, in the next 400 the earth will need to be consuming the full solar energy load of the entire planet (in 2400 years we'd need all the energy available in the universe). The post I linked to discusses the issue of 'decoupling', which is the idea that we can increase value without increasing energy consumption. He argues that this isn't a long-term solution, as it would create some perverse incentives (physical goods would be essentially free).

In any case, I like your thoughts on network culture, I've been feeling the same way for awhile, wondering why our government is so interested in geographical borders. Not sure what else to say about that, more processing cycles needed...

ToB said...

Here's the link to the piece that hat tips this great post - cheers!

Ryan Michael said...

I just stumbled on an amazing blog post that seems relevant to the 'network culture' topic. It's an analysis of the spectrum of economic transactions based on two variables; the degree of 'relatedness' between the parties (ie, the frequency of interaction between them) and the degree of 'refinement' of the good being exchanged (ie, the ratio of effort put forth by the provider in creating the good vs the amount of effort required by the consumer to benefit from the good).

The result is a surprisingly useful framework for conceptualizing economic transactions, and well worth a read.

Unifying the Value Universe

T(e)M said...

And now we have "Twitteros terroristas"in Mexico, citizens who spread the rumour of a narco attack on schools (which never happened) and are now facing imprisionment, a month before 35 bodies were thrown in a freeway in the same city. Networkphobia as a government disease.